Twenty-five of the Best Films on Amazon Prime
By Richard BrodyDecember 23, 2020
Because of the scant financial prospects during a time of scant theatrical attendance, the year-end crop of movies being positioned for the Oscars and other awards (alongside the alternative batch of holiday blockbusters) is thinner than usual. But there are still some wonderfully accomplished and delightfully surprising new movies: foremost, “Sylvie’s Love,” which is playing not in theatres but on Amazon Prime. Even before the pandemic, that service, like others, had taken on a major role as a producer and distributor of movies that studios wouldn’t touch and independents couldn’t afford; similarly, it also plays a significant role as a virtual repertory house. Though the actual repertory houses (notably, Film at Lincoln Center, Film Forum, and Metrograph) have continued to play leading roles in the release (digital, for the time being) of classic rediscoveries and restorations, Amazon and other services are the video store in the sky. 2020 in Review
After I pulled together a list of movies streaming on Amazon earlier this year, I heard from some readers that I didn’t approach it in the spirit of the site’s habitual users: I didn’t distinguish between movies that required a fee (or an additional membership) for viewing and those that were on Prime, available for free to subscribers. Though most of the fees in question are small, they pose a psychological hurdle—they demand a commitment, or a leap of faith in the list-maker’s acumen, that a no-extra-charge viewing wards off. The psychology of online free-ness has had a devastating effect on the ability of recording artists to make a living from their music, and it also threatens the livelihoods of filmmakers and distributors (because box-office receipts are reported transparently, and usually far exceed the pass-through of online viewing). The success of the major streaming sites emerges from this disproportion: a one-month subscription costs less than a single movie ticket, and many viewers are willing to accept barely acceptable movies that then come to them without additional charges. This list is offered as an enthusiastic alternative to the good-enough—a batch of films (and there are many more to be found there) that are available to subscribers for free and that merit a place among the best of any year.
“Aaron Loves Angela”
Gordon Parks, Jr.—best known for “Super Fly”—directed this teeming and turbulent New York teen romance between Aaron (Kevin Hooks), who’s Black, and Angela (Irene Cara), who’s Puerto Rican, with passionate attention to the city’s pleasures and pressures. Detailed subplots involving Aaron’s embittered father, Ike (Moses Gunn), a former star athlete, and Beau (Robert Hooks), a pimp and drug dealer, spotlight the dangers and the discouragements that the protagonists, growing up in the ghetto, confront.
In his first film as a director, Jerry Lewis also stars in the title role of a uniformed service employee at the Fontainebleau Hotel, in Miami Beach. His mishaps and misadventures at work give rise to outlandish incongruities and uproariously mighty calamities; Lewis’s directorial inventiveness and precision (as well as his self-deprecating self-depiction) channel the inspirations of the great silent comedies.
Spike Lee’s hip-hop musical is a drama based on a comedy—a loose adaptation of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” it’s set in the Black community of Chicago’s South Side, and involves a group of women who go on a sex strike to force men to give up their guns. The action ranges far into politics and psychology, exposing the systemic racism and the warped masculinity that lead to violence.
“Come and Get It”
Howard Hawks was fired toward the end of filming this rowdy 1936 adventure romance for changing the script, but the resulting movie—based on a novel by Edna Ferber and reflecting his personal family history—is very much his own, with its sexually tangled, multigenerational love story involving a logging tycoon (Edward Arnold) who yearns for but can’t marry a saloon waitress (Frances Farmer) and, decades later, falls in love with the woman’s daughter (also played by Farmer). Walter Brennan brings antic humor and tender poignancy to the role of the tycoon’s longtime friend.
The civil war in Chad is the backdrop for this tense psychological and political drama—the first feature directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun—about a young man who, while seeking revenge against the ex-soldier who killed his father, becomes a virtual member of his family and a part of a new community. With a discerning eye for detail, Haroun depicts the moral and physical toll of endemic and unredressed violence.
“Deacons for Defense”
This historical drama, from 2003, is based on the true story of Black residents of a Louisiana town who, in 1965, during their struggle for civil rights, took up arms to resist the Ku Klux Klan—and inspired others throughout the South to do so. It stars Forest Whitaker and Ossie Davis, and it’s directed by Bill Duke, who centers the conflict on the effort to desegregate a factory that’s the town’s largest employer. With scenes involving legal action by the federal government and judicial exposure of the Klan’s infiltration of the town’s police force, the movie suggests the crucial power—and subsequent failure—of government in civil-rights enforcement.
“Digging for Fire”
Mumblecore peers into the abyss of middle age in Joe Swanberg’s brisk-toned but dark-themed drama, about a couple (Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt) who borrow a house for a sort-of staycation and get caught in an undercurrent of sex and violence. The teeming cast of deftly improvising stars also includes Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Brie Larson, Orlando Bloom, Judith Light, and Sam Elliott.
“Inside Llewyn Davis”
The Coen brothers’ period fantasy, about an early-nineteen-sixties folksinger caught in the whiplash of pop-music history and its odd political implications, is one of their most heartfelt and emotionally sophisticated films; it offers Oscar Isaac a melancholy showcase in the title role and lovingly re-creates the era’s conflicts and idiosyncrasies.
The basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, who revolutionized the game, is the subject of this passionately detailed historical drama, about his years at the University of Kansas, in the mid-nineteen-fifties, when he was encouraged by local leaders of the Black community to leverage his fame for the pursuit of justice. Kevin Willmott wrote and directed the film with a keen focus on university politics involving the coaching staff, the administration, and the curriculum, as they reflect national politics and larger societal trends.
“Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc”
This freewheeling bio-pic of France’s sainted heroine, directed by Bruno Dumont, is a highly choreographed rock opera, filmed on rustic location, in which two children share the lead role. Dumont boldly risks (but never falls into) absurdity in pursuit of astonishment; martial valor, religious ecstasy, and naïve faith fuse in the candid performances and his audacious vision.
This 1954 Western, directed by Nicholas Ray, features two of the greatest and most original of all movie performances—by Joan Crawford, as a fiercely independent saloon owner, and Sterling Hayden, as the laconic and tormented gunman who helps her fight predatory businesspeople. (The co-star Mercedes McCambridge offers an additional surge of female power as Crawford’s bitter adversary.)
“The Liberation of L. B. Jones”
William Wyler’s last film, from 1970, is a ferocious political drama, set in a post-Jim Crow South that in many ways resembles its segregationist past. It combines the story of a Black man who returns to his home town, in Tennessee, planning to kill a white police officer who’d brutalized him a dozen years earlier, with the tale of a wealthy Black man who hires a white attorney to represent him in a divorce proceeding—because his wife, a Black woman, is having an affair with a white man.
“The Love Witch”
The elaborately decorative style of this sixties-set horror melodrama, written and directed by Anna Biller—who also made the costumes and sets by hand—gives Hollywood conventions a philosophical twist. It does the same for the story, in which a romantic Wiccan pursues relationships with men whom she disposes of when they disappoint her. The tweaks and inflections of genre and tone extend to the nuts and bolts of a police investigation and the fancy of a Renaissance fair.
“Mikey and Nicky”
Elaine May’s third feature is a rowdy and violent, outrageously funny yet tautly tragic crime story about a low-level gangster (John Cassavetes) who summons his best friend (Peter Falk), another mobster, to help him elude a contract killer. The byways of their overnight race through Philadelphia, where May grew up, evoke her cinematic X-ray of male-centered dramas of sentimental loyalty—and reveal their misogyny.
Christina Crawford’s memoir about her horrific childhood as the daughter of Joan Crawford is adapted by the director Frank Perry (who’s also part of a quartet of screenwriters) into one of the finest bio-pics of a Hollywood luminary. The drama, from 1981, never shows the actress (played by Faye Dunaway) in any of her iconic roles; rather, it suggests that her onscreen furies are inseparable from her raging behavior in private life.
Charles Burnett’s 1996 drama, set on a Southern plantation in the eighteen-twenties and thirties, is centered on an enslaved Black man who takes terrifying risks to teach other enslaved people there to read and write. Burnett depicts the horrors of slavery while offering an analytical view of its embedded place in American institutions. (The revolt led by Nat Turner, whose life and legacy are the subject of a great documentary by Burnett, is present in the drama as a crucial subplot.)
“A Quiet Passion”
Cynthia Nixon stars in Terence Davies’s bio-pic of Emily Dickinson, whose life is presented as a sort of screwball tragedy—a lacerating satire on narrow New England mores that stifle her public life in advance of her agonizing and early death. Davies’s writing and direction, with its heights of style and feeling, make this one of the few movies about a writer that captures the creative power at the heart of the drama.
In Martin Scorsese’s 1980 bio-pic about the boxer Jake LaMotta (played with terrifying energy by Robert De Niro), the violence inflicted by LaMotta outside the ring is only a small part of the destructive and self-destructive furies that ruin his career and his life. With its depiction of a Mafia-dominated sport and the boxer’s thrashing struggle to stay out of the Mob’s clutches, Scorsese merges his portrait of one tormented soul with the vast hydra of social pathology that more overtly dominates such masterworks as “Goodfellas” and “The Irishman.”
Vittorio De Sica’s intricately legalistic yet turbulently physical 1956 drama, about a poor young couple in Rome who, taking advantage of a regulatory loophole, struggle to build a ramshackle house on abandoned land, plays like the last gasp of neorealism amid new strains of cinematic modernism.
The director Jerzy Skolimowski brings a sinuous sense of style and an eccentric flair for close observation to this macabre drama, from 1978, set in the English countryside, about a patient in a mental institution (Alan Bates) who narrates, in flashback, a tale of romantic tragedy that involves his own supernatural powers—the deadly “terror shout” of the title. John Hurt plays a composer whose studio recordings of household objects give rise to fascinating scenes and sounds; Susannah York co-stars.
“The Spy Who Dumped Me”
Susanna Fogel’s high-energy comedy features exuberant performances by Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon as two civilians who get ensnared in a dangerous plot of international espionage—and its action sequences are among the most giddily inspired ones in any recent movie, whether comedic or dramatic.
“The Strange Woman”
This frenzied historical melodrama, from 1946, set in mid-nineteenth-century Maine, has a Euro-Gothic tone, thanks to the labyrinthine tension of Edgar G. Ulmer’s direction and the lurid grandeur of Hedy Lamarr’s leading performance as a poor young woman who leverages her beauty to marry a rich old man while setting her sights on his handsome son.
Along with the superb cast, this playfully comedic tale of a free-spirited, formerly rich New Yorker (embodied with verve by the late Brittany Murphy) who becomes the nanny to a very orderly child (Dakota Fanning) boasts an irresistible earworm of a song on its soundtrack, “Sheets of Egyptian Cotton.”
“You Are Not I”
This short feature, directed by Sara Driver and based on a story by Paul Bowles, stars Suzanne Fletcher as a woman who escapes from a mental institution and takes refuge in her estranged sister’s home. Driver imaginatively evokes the slippage between reality and delusion with keenly nuanced dramatic observations, Fletcher’s coldly masklike performance, and a vertiginously obsessional voice-over.
“You Only Live Once”
Henry Fonda plays a three-time convict whose efforts to go straight are thwarted, and Sylvia Sidney plays a legal secretary who loves him no matter what, in Fritz Lang’s passionately romantic and doom-laden drama, from 1937—a primordial tale of lovers on the run. The action begins in a public defender’s office, with a merchant complaining about police corruption protected by the officers’ union; it continues with scenes in prison, and it offers, throughout, a view of American society deformed by a cruel and narrow view of crime and punishment.